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Victims Tell Inmates about Pain Crime Causes

April 15, 2016

By Andrew Garber

DOC Communications


Judy Dutcher started the Bridges to Life program at Monroe Correctional Complex last year after running pilots at Washington's two prisons for women.

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MONROE - Two-dozen inmates sat in strained silence as they listened to a woman talk about her family, her teen years and the repeated sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a church camp counselor.

“How real do you want it guys?” she asked, her voice tensing, before going into personal details. “Up to you,” several of the men murmured, shifting uncomfortably in folding chairs that formed a large circle.

The woman described how the abuse led to years of emotional problems and drug use, as well as troubles at work and in her marriage. After she finished, no one spoke for a minute. Then several inmates thanked her, saying, “We appreciate you sharing.”

Her visit at the Monroe Correctional Complex, (MCC) earlier this month was part of a “Bridges to Life” program that brings in crime victims to share their experiences. The 14-week course, run entirely by volunteers, helps inmates learn first-hand about the suffering that crime causes.

While none of the people brought in to speak are victims of the inmates they see at MCC, they are often victims of the same type of crimes committed by the inmates.

Gabriel Garcia, 50, who’s serving a life without parole sentence for murder, said programs like Bridges to Life are vital to help inmates turn around their lives.

“When you go through a class like this, and see how a crime affects people, it makes you not want to commit another crime in the future,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody because you’ve personally heard from someone how crime has affected them.”

Bridges to Life is one of roughly 100 programs offered at the MCC, run by volunteers. The prison complex has around 700 volunteers overall who come to the facility on a daily basis to run classes ranging from Bridges to Life and Toastmasters, to University Beyond Bars, which helps inmates earn college degrees.

Marjorie Petersen, volunteer coordinator for the complex, said she has no trouble finding volunteers, noting that MCC, located just north of Seattle, is lucky to be located in a densely populated area.

Petersen estimates she brings in around 100 new volunteers each year to fill open positions. “They know there’s a huge population here that’s underserved, as far as services that they need to succeed,” she said.

Karl Gustafson, who began volunteering at the prison a decade ago, said he keeps coming back because inmates need the help.

“The thing is I don’t care what they’ve done,” said Gustafson, who was recently named MCC’s volunteer of the year. “They’ve been judged and they’ve been sentenced. But on the other end of the spectrum, they will get out and we don’t want it to happen again. So we come up with tools to help them succeed.”

Bridges to Life is one of those tools. Judy Dutcher started the program at MCC last year after running pilots at Washington’s two prisons for women.

Dutcher originally became involved with the program in Texas, after the murder of her 13-year-old daughter in 1989. “I felt like I needed to do something to help prevent other parents from going through something like this,” she said.

After moving to Washington in 2009, Dutcher eventually reached out to the Washington State Department of Corrections, (DOC) to gauge interest in starting the program here.

She now works with teams of volunteers, like herself, at MCC and other state prisons. In addition to bringing in victims to talk about their experiences, the volunteers also break into small group sessions with the inmates and require them to discuss the crimes they committed.

Over time, the inmates learn to trust the volunteers, she said. “We’re kind of like the parents a lot of them never had,” Dutcher said, noting many of the inmates suffered from neglect and abuse as children. “A lot of them don’t know how to live a different life. They didn’t learn that as a child. So not only do some of my victims serve as speakers and tell their stories, we’re there in a mentorship role as well.”

David Shirley, an inmate at MCC projected to be released in 2025, said the fact that people are willing to come in on their own time to help inmates means a lot.

“The people who come in and volunteer, they want to be here. And we know this,” he said. “When somebody comes in here and sits down and says ‘Listen, I want you to be a better person when you get out,’ you know they are telling the truth. They’re invested. It’s their community we’re going back to.”

Dutcher said the aim of Bridges to Life is to not only help imates understand the impacts of their crimes on the victims and their families, but also gain a better understanding of what led them to commit the crime. “The purpose of this program is to end the revolving door cycle,” she said.

The program has tracked the recidivism rates of inmates who’ve gone through the course at prisons in different states since 1998. To date, more than 28,000 inmates have graduated from the program. The recidivism rate in Washington state is 32 percent. Washington defines recidivism as any felony offense committed by an inmate within 36 months of release from prison that results in a readmission to prison.

“In the latest Bridges to Life recidivism study, it’s down to 13 percent with only 2.4 percent returning for violent crime,” Dutcher said.

That shows the program is working, she said, by “getting these inmates back out there where they can hold their heads high and feel like ‘OK, I’ve done my time, I’ve paid my debt to society. Now let me see what I can do to be a productive citizen.’ ”